First coined in the early days of the 20th century by the philosopher/theologian Josiah Royce, “The Beloved Community” is a term that was popularized and invested with a deeper meaning by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The website of the King Center gives a two-page explanation of “the beloved community” as envisioned by Dr. King. Foremost in his thinking for creating such a community were the characteristics of brotherhood and sisterhood, nonviolence, and justice.
To a significant degree, those of us who are a part of Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kansas, experience the joys of being in a beloved community. As an Anabaptist church, RMC regularly emphasizes the characteristics just mentioned.
Although King was a Baptist pastor, his emphasis on nonviolence is especially much more in harmony with the Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups than with most of the Baptist churches in the U.S. And one of King’s closest colleagues was the Mennonite scholar Vincent Harding, who passed away last May at the age of 82.
The goal of RMC is to accept all people “regardless of race, ethnic identity, gender, sexual orientation, age, economic or other life circumstances” (words from RMC’s homepage). The picture below, which shows those who served Communion at RMC this past Sunday, is one small expression of what that looks like.
As a rule, the Communion service is led by the pastor assisted by the worship leader for the day, who last Sunday was Carmen, and the deacon in charge of preparations, who happened to be me. In the picture Pastor Ruth Harder is handing the cup to Amy, who was helping serve Communion for the first time.
There are six deacons at RMC, always three women and three men, and they rotate being in charge of Communion preparation. Being in charge includes enlisting three other servers. In addition to Amy, I had asked Fred, an older African-American man June and I sit next to almost every Sunday, and Emma, a high school student who was baptized last year, to help serve. Because of the snow that morning, Fred didn’t make it, so Dave substituted for him.
At RMC there is no “qualification” for being a Communion server other than being a part of the “beloved community.” In the Baptist churches I had been part of in the States, the Lord’s Supper was always, as far as I can remember, served by the deacons—who except for the last Baptist church I was a member of were always white men.
It was in Japan that I first experienced women serving as deacons and serving Communion. And then for years and years at the Fukuoka International Church that June and I help start and which I served as (part-time) pastor for 24 years, there were no deacons. So the servers for the Lord’s Supper were more like those at RMC—except there were usually only two beside the presiding pastor.
By “the beloved community,” King meant more than local church congregations. But local congregations are a good place to start. If our churches don’t find ways to transcend race, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, age, and economic differences, how can we possibly expect to see the emergence of the beloved community in the larger society?
This coming Wednesday, January 14, is the regular monthly meeting of Vital Conversations at the Mid-Continent Public Library in Gladstone (Mo.). The discussion topic will be “The Beloved Community” and several local African-American guests are expected to be present for the meeting, which begins at 1 p.m. Visitors are cordially welcome.